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Updated: Aug 2, 2021

by Joe Stalker, S&C Coach and Exercise Scientist

Allostatic load is one of those terms that is experienced by everyone yet is often rarely talked about in the health and fitness industry and in mainstream circles. It has been dubbed the “the wear and tear on the body”.

In particular it is defined as “the wear and tear on the body which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress”

Or we can term it as “the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events and involves the interaction of different physiological systems at varying degrees of activity”

Either works well, and it is something we have all felt at times. And especially since COVID-19 has come into our lives. That feeling of being worn down, fatigued, drained. It’s the mental strain, the emotional strain and also can be physical strain of course.

And it’s almost like your body can work against you.

It can leave you feeling exhausted and tired with no energy for anything else.

Like you are constantly stressed out and even you might freak out at things you normally would not.

The requirements of people nowadays, from professional athletes to the average Joe, adapting and responding is greater than ever before. COVID-19 has presented an enormous number of challenges for us to overcome.

This toll and load can have negative effects on our health. Many studies have documented a strong link with Allostatic Load to the incidence of coronary heart disease, for markers of cardiovascular health and can be an influence into all-cause mortality. Furthermore, there has been shown to be a connecting Allostatic Load to the possible dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, cytokines, and stress hormones such as cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormones. Plus loads more.

The autonomic nervous system, in particular, is one that is affected by exposure to chronic stress. Stress will activate our sympathetic (flight or fight) pathway. Which is important and vital. Yet can cause possible issues if done too much and too often. And why there is a opposite side of this system and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) pathway. A pathway that might be crying out for some to rest, relax, breathe, and recover.

Lack of exercise adds to this Allostatic Load. It’s an outlet for people and a coping mechanism. And we all know the impact that lack of exercise has on our health.

Excessive exercise can also contribute to this load. For many, they may fall into the other category and lacking enough exercise. Yet for some people, and particularly athletes, it’s important to understand if they are pushing too much. Training, exercise, and sport is a stress onto the body. It can almost become an addiction to training to where people can smash themselves.

I think the stress bucket analogy also fits perfectly to describe the term of Allostatic Load. As shown in the picture.

A fragile system is one that has the water level close to the top and not much room left for any more stress. If so, it can spill over. The spill over can result in a poor mental health, a sense of chronic exhaustion and burnout, which can develop a lack of motivation. As well as the health issues mentioned above.

It’s common for people who are training for general fitness to not have much direct stress, in the form of training and exercise, on their systems. It’s more the indirect stresses. A combination of internal and external, sans the stress of training (especially intense). For athletes, it’s usually flipped.

This is why sleep and nutrition is so important for so many reasons. It’s the cornerstone of our rest, digest, and recovery. It can allow the Allostatic Load (water level) to go down and to recharge our bodies. It can help us to manage our resources.

This term plays a huge role in our health. And I find there are 3 common ways to start improving it

1. Look at the dosage. Stress is vital and something we all experience and need. It's the amount, frequency, and duration we need to be aware of.

2. Change relationship of, or how aware you are of, the things to the bucket.

3. Look to improve how you react/respond. As health represents the size of the bucket. What you can tolerate

This looks different for everyone. As everyone is unique in their own way.

So again, I’ll finish with the same question I did at the start.

How heavy is that invisible bucket of yours feeling?

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